Last month, the Chicago Defender joined the long list of American newspapers that have ceased print publication in response to collapsing circulation and advertising revenue.
Reports on the paper’s transition to an online-only format have focused on its justly celebrated role in shaping the Great Migration and the fight against Jim Crow. But another element of its history is less well-known: Beginning in the 1950s, it provided extensive coverage of black queer life in Chicago, and in the 1970s, even as the paper was declining in influence, it reported sympathetically on the city’s nascent movement for LGBTQ equality.
As the Defender’s coverage shows, the black press played a key role in the late 20th century in expanding democracy and challenging injustice, in ways that went beyond opposition to anti-black racism.
The Defender in these years, as an institution of the tiny but growing black middle class, promoted respectable ceremonies and commemorations held in black churches and schools and framed social deviance, including gay life, as unhealthy. Yet when rigorously compared to contemporary white mainstream press coverage that treated gay life as dangerous, it tended to portray queer life in a more benign light.
Unlike their white counterparts, the editors’ middle-class respectability politics coexisted with three other factors that pushed the paper’s coverage of LGBTQ life in a more sympathetic direction.
First and foremost, the black press sought to show the richness and diversity of African American life in Chicago. Ever since the Great Migration, white politicians had pushed sex work, gambling and gay entertainment into black neighborhoods. As a result, in the 1950s, queer life was often more visible in black districts — including Bronzeville on Chicago’s South Side, New York’s Harlem and Miami’s “Colored Town” — than elsewhere in America’s cities.
In particular, the Defender began running large photo spreads each year covering Finnie’s Halloween Ball, an intensely competitive contest in female impersonation held before a multiracial audience of thousands annually on the South Side of Chicago. This reporting depicted the events’ glamour and creativity. In 1951, for example, the Defender covered Finnie’s with five large photos depicting the drag queens who “thrilled, shocked, and amused over 5,000 spectators who jammed the Pershing ballroom.” Defender columnists sometimes served as judges for the event, which a 1960 article called “the most talked about and best attended event on Chicago’s Southside.”
A second factor pushing the Defender toward a more sympathetic depiction of gay life was its editors’ growing ethos of skepticism toward police behavior. Notably, in the early 1960s, Chicago’s white daily papers joined in calling for increased police surveillance of gay nightlife. After a 1964 raid on a gay nightclub in which 109 people were arrested, the liberal Chicago Daily News printed the name, age and address of almost every one, and many were immediately fired from their jobs.
The Defender did not join in calling for such raids. Indeed, it had drawn attention to police brutality on the South Side in a high-profile series of articles in 1958, and in the second half of 1963 began covering a sustained campaign of black protest against police brutality. By the late 1960s, the Defender’s writers frequently covered anti-black violence by white Chicago policemen. Incidents of police violence against black female impersonators were covered on the Defender’s front page in October 1969 and again in November 1970.
Third, the Defender’s sympathy toward gay rights was shaped by a general recognition of the value of expanding the state anti-discrimination apparatus. Struggling to stay relevant in the face of growing black radicalism that rejected the black establishment, the paper began running a regular column by Jesse Jackson. In the early 1970s, the paper covered, and lent support to, unprecedented insurgencies against anti-black police brutality by both black aldermen and black voters, who in 1972 defeated the prosecutor who had ordered an apartment raid in which officers killed two Illinois Black Panther Party leaders.
The paper then followed its constituency and adopted a more critical stance toward traditional machine politics. In 1973, a prominent black alderman, Clifford P. Kelley, first proposed a gay rights ordinance in a council committee. Kelley’s visibility ensured prominent coverage of the proposal in the city’s black press throughout the 1970s. In 1974, when activists held a “gay kiss-in” downtown to demand passage of Kelley’s measure, Defender staff photographer John Gunn’s photo of a male couple kissing appeared on the front page. The Defender was the first of Chicago’s daily papers — there were five at the time — to show gay intimacy so graphically, lending credibility to the activists’ call for expanding municipal protections against job and housing discrimination.
It was arguably only in 1977 that Chicago’s white-owned press caught up to the Defender. In 1977, after thousands of people protested a visit by anti-gay activist Anita Bryant to Chicago, the Tribune and Sun-Times each ran a series on gay life — which focused, tellingly, on the annual pride parade and gay community institutions that had sprung up on Chicago’s North Side.
That same year, a long article in the Defender by reporter Jan Faller profiled two young men, using pseudonyms, whom it portrayed as examples of “thousands of black gays in Chicago.” The story subtly explored how the new white gay institutions on Chicago’s North Side, in the context of a segregated city, were inaccessible to many black queer people.
Since the 1970s, the further institutionalization of gay life on the North Side has marginalized black queer Chicagoans in an entirely new way. In “Boystown,” a new moniker in the 1980s for a part of the East Lakeview neighborhood, new bars flourished. But while predominantly white gay patrons could gather free from police raids, most black Chicagoans had to travel far to get there and were often asked to show multiple IDs at the door. AIDS widened the fissure, at once economic and racial, that had always divided black and white in the gay movement but had been temporarily patched by the common enemy of the police.
The Defender’s political coverage enjoyed a resurgence in the 1980s during the mayoral administration of Harold Washington, the city’s first black mayor, who backed gay rights. Chinta Strausberg, hired in 1981, became the chief political reporter and wrote many excellent articles on the AIDS crisis and the struggle to enact a gay rights ordinance, which finally succeeded in 1988. Reflecting on the end of the Defender’s print publication era in a public Facebook post last month, Strausberg wrote, “We wrote stories that no other newspaper wanted to cover.”
Yet black gay life did grow more marginal. When a gay organization applied in 1993 to march in the Bud Billiken Parade — ironically sponsored by Chicago Defender Charities and the nation’s largest African American parade — its application was initially denied. The following year, about 35 people marched with Proud Black Lesbians and Gays in the Billiken Parade. Though this effort succeeded far more quickly than gay activists’ attempts to join the St. Patrick’s Day Parade in New York City, the fact is that queer life was no longer most visible on the South Side, as it had been two decades earlier.
With the Defender no longer sold at newsstands, Chicago has lost a black-controlled institution that for over a century not only incubated black talent but frequently spoke truth to power and documented and challenged injustices. Its place in Chicago and the nation was unique, but its history shows that when we place black newspapers at the center of the story, new dimensions of the queer past become visible.